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The Importance of Analogical Reasoning

The Importance of Analogical Reasoning

The following letter is in response to University of California President Richard Atkinson’s recommendation to do away with the SAT and instead emphasize the SAT II, a series of subject-based achievement tests (see Black Issues, March 15).
First, we applaud Dr. Atkinson’s efforts to make the admissions process to institutions of higher learning fairer to both females and minorities. A more equitable assessment for admissions can only better serve future college students and the country. Second, we agree with Dr. Atkinson’s view that teachers should not subject students to hours of drills studying verbal analogies in preparation for the SAT. In many difficult verbal analogies, often times the extent of the students’ vocabularies is measured rather than their ability to use true analogical reasoning. Additionally, we agree that teaching to a test does not significantly help the students if they believe they must learn the information to pass a particular test and that the information does not have much relevance for their lives outside the testing room.
However, having stated our points of agreement with Dr. Atkinson’s views, some other elements deeply concern us. Our first concern is that the public is unaware of the central role that analogical reasoning, not just solving verbal analogies, occupies in human cognition. The public may begin to believe that analogies, and by extension, analogical reasoning, is trivial. Nothing could be further from the truth.
At the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers recognized, discussed and wrote about the importance of analogy and analogical processes in both language and other aspects of the universe. Aristotle gave us the classic A:B :: C:D format still in use today.
Our second major concern is that the public may perceive that what is being said is that minorities cannot solve analogies, or at least, not very well; therefore, we should abolish analogies as an assessment tool. We fear this will lead to another incorrect public perception of cognitive deficiencies in minorities. Our research provides evidence that all students can master the skills necessary to engage in successful analogical solution. We observed successful analogical solution and analogical transfer in third- and fourth-grade students in the District of Columbia Public School System, which has a minority population of more than 90 percent. Additional research in a Maryland suburban parochial school with a majority minority population yielded similar results.
We believe the major problem is that students have not been taught analogical reasoning skills with the appropriate breadth and depth. Teachers who do not understand the true significance of analogical reasoning, its many important applications and its central place in human cognition cannot adequately excite the students about it. 
It is our hope that at some point in the future, when there has been widespread implementation of curricula that incorporate findings from age-appropriate research on analogical reasoning, analogical solution and transfer will be taught with excitement and an incorporation of its many applications will be reflected in the curriculum. When that happens, the cramming on verbal analogies seen today in the upper grades in preparation for the SAT will become obsolete. 

— Doris McNeely Johnson, Ph.D.
Research Associate
University of the District of Columbia/Center for Applied Research and Urban Policy

— Albert Roberts, Ph.D.
Chairperson, Department of Psychology
Howard University, Washington, D.C.

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